Threaded Stories: A Talk with Polly Leonard

Polly Leonard has a visionary mind and an eye, skill and respect for craft and for the beautifully made. She is an expert with an education and background in textiles. She has a passion for fabric, for storytelling and for the way textiles can weave our own lives. But the most extraordinary thing about Polly is that she wraps all her knowledge, and passion, up and shares it to the world. Selvedge, the magazine she founded fifteen years ago, is a one hundred percent independent publication that sets the standard in the design field, standing apart through authentic, high quality content and aesthetic rarely seen today.

Selvedge combines fine art, fashion, decor, travel and history in unique, eye-opening ways. It introduces and advocates true makers and artisanal, hand-made work that inspires textile artists and collectors, but, more than that, it inspires and encourages us all to take the road less travelled and to look at the world differently, and appreciate culture, beauty, tradition and folklore in a wider context. Selvedge inspires us to make the art of textiles part of the art of life. And, last but not least, given my never-fading love for the tangible and for the printed word in a world of electronic everything, Selvedge inspires to intimacy, to human interaction and to a slow-paced, well-lived life.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Walk A Fine Line: A guided walk through a city built on lace, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim-Waters, issue 82

 
I have recently talked to Polly Leonard about what keeps her going, issue after issue, after a decade and a half in the high-end magazine publishing business, about why clothes matter, about Frida Kahlo, and about why her first piece of advice for someone with their own dream is to fail fast.
 
 

“If people knew how cotton was grown,
harvested, spun, knit and sewn,
then they would understand why a T-shirt
should cost more than a cup of coffee.
If you are not paying for your clothes,
then someone else is.”

 
 
If you could capture the essence of Selvedge in one sentence, how would you describe it?
The Fabric of your life.

How did you come up with the name?
The selvedge is the non-fraying edge of a piece of cloth. It holds the cloth together and stops the individual threads from fraying. It is also where a designer would traditionally put their name. It is also a bit obscure, not part of the contemporary lexicon and thus rather specialist, like the magazine.

How did the magazine come to be? What’s the story behind it?
I trained as a textile designer and artist. I have wide ranging interests around material culture and the role of cloth in the evolution of humanity. When I had my son eighteen years ago, I stopped teaching for a while and began writing to fill my time. I was then invited to edit another magazine, which I did for a couple of years. This gave me the idea to put together something a little more sophisticated with a wider remit, but with textiles at its heart.
 
Selvedge magazine issue 82-Classiq

Selvedge magazine, current issue 82

 
 
Have you always been passionate about textiles? Is your work also aiming to preserve the craft and the fine hand skills related to traditional textiles?
I have been passionate about textiles for as long as I can remember. I am of the generation who developed hand-skills during childhood. There is something special and important about hand-made objects, but it is the textile industry and its products that has shaped the contemporary world more than anything else. Ironically, it is the disposal of textile waste that is the biggest preoccupation we have at the moment.

I do believe every small change counts. What do you think is the first thing every individual should do in order to address this issue?
I suggest you try dress-making and recommend Merchant and Mills – they make easy to follow patterns for beginners and sell great fabrics that will inspire you. You will have all of the benefits of a mindful experience and a great garment to wear afterwards. Once you have made something yourself, you will have gained a greater understanding of shape and fit and will no longer tolerate the shoddy construction of high street garments.

Selvedge - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Selvedge - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Top image: Keeping Body and Soul Together; A rare collection of Chinese GeBa,
photographed by Mark Eden schooled, art directed by Nelson Sepulveda, issue 77
Button image: Passion Flower: A passion for petals and insects, by Yoshiko Wada, issue 81

 
 
What has been the most challenging part about launching and running a magazine?
The economics of magazine publishing have always been a struggle, the production costs are huge. I believe Selvedge was the first of a new breed of periodicals, of which there are now many who use the same business model. We have high production values, use good images and much of the content is not time sensitive, so, in a way, it’s more like a book. We rely less on advertising revenue and more on subscription sales, and don’t use the traditional distribution channels where unsold copies are pulped. The most challenging part, now fifteen years on, is keeping each issue as fresh and exciting as the first.

What is it that keeps you going, issue after issue?
I am a perfectionist, I start every issue with a vision and then, because of the constraints of time and money, the final result always turns out a little different. So I try again with the next issue. There is also an endless supply of really interesting stories I want to tell.

You are obviously incredibly passionate about what you do and you would probably do it again if you were to start over. Do you have any word of advice for someone with their own idea or dream?
My advice would be to fail fast. I mentor a lot of young designers who have an idea for a business or a product or whatever. They spend large amouts of money and time perfecting a business plan and preparing for a launch. Then, when they finally pluck up the courage to take it to market, it fails in an afternoon. My advice would be to get your idea out there as quickly and inexpensively as possible, so when you realise plan A doesn’t work you have enough resouces and energy to push through with plan B and C, etc. Remember the designer James Dyson spent 15 years and produced 5,127 prototypes, before his bag-free vacuum cleaner was a success.

Selvedge The Fabric of your life - Classiq

Left: White Out: Cloth from the snow country, by Sophie Vent, issue 81
Right: Grass Roots: The making of Indigo Dye by Rowland Rickets, issue 82

Selvedge The Fabric of your life - Classiq

Threadbear: The social history of Japanese Boro, by Jim Austin, issue 82

 
 
In this fast-fashion, fast-living world, there seems to be an increased interest in the hand-made, in craftsmanship, in locally-made products, in mindful shopping, in things with true value. Do you think things are starting to change?
I do agree with all you have said, but it is a drop in the ocean. It will take mass action to curb our addiction to cheap clothing and to cure the embarrassing bulge in our wardrobes.

Do clothes matter? Does image matter? Should we get attached to our clothes?
I think clothes do matter, they physically and metaphorically provide a connection between oneself and the rest of the world. They communicate all kinds of conscious and unconscious messages. I am currently working on issue 83 in which we have an article about the Frida Kahlo clothes and personal effects which are to be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in June for the first time. These objects make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. They bring home to the viewer the physical pain Frida endured and how dressing herself in glorious textiles and make-up enabled her to survive and thrive through adversity. They make you fall in love with her.

Selvedge - The Fabric of your life - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Left: Sleep Tight: The engineering behind a good night’s sleep, issue 79
Right: Grass Roots: The making of Indigo Dye by Rowland Rickets, issue 82

 
 
Who and what inspires you? Do you have any unexpected sources of inspiration?
I am inspired by stories, I enjoy a good book and have a subscription to Persephone books, a publisher that specialises in reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Of course I am also inspired by textiles and the stories of how and why they are made.

Would you care to share a favourite book title and also a favourite textile book?
There are many, but Brother of the More Famous Jack, by Barbara Trapido, is a joy and the protagonist is a knitter. As for textile books, Undiscovered Minimalism: Gelims from Northern Iran, by Parviz Tanavoli, will lift the soul. I have just bought Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, by Paola Manfredi. I am eager to see if it lives up to my expectations.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Building Bridges: The legacy of an empire built on torsion, issue 68

 
 
What does style mean to you?
For me, style is about protocol, it is about doing things in a certain way that makes experiences more pleasant for people. That may include taking time to present a meal in an attractive way for a guest, dressing appropriately if you are accepting an invitation, or simply acting courteously.

You live in London. How has living in London influenced you creatively?
I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I love to be surrounded by the grandeur of the architecture. I love that I walk past the giraffes in the zoo when I drop my daughter off at the park for her Lacrosse practice. I love that that I encounter something inspiring every day.

What is your one favourite thing to do in London and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
I would miss the ability to be spontaneous. There is always something new to discover in London, whether that be a new shop or an exhibition. I love that I can find something interesting on the internet and be there in an hour. Last week I visited Horace Walpole Strawberry Hill in Twickenham and then stopped off at the Royal Airforce museum to look at the linen covered aircraft from the First World War on the way home.

Selvedge magazine - A talk with Polly Leonard - Classiq

Hat Tricks: Sandy Black takes her hat off to Bolivian Knittin in the Round, issue 68

 
 
One thing you cannot start the day without:
I listen to the radio while I eat breakfast, I like to know what is happening in the world, and to listen to some music before I start my day.

Where would we find you when not working?
I work long hours, so you would probably have to look hard, but you may find me on Hampstead Heath walking my dog. I also spend a month on Cape Cod in the summer and love the Atlantic beaches and the dunes — this is my happy place.

You wish people appreciated more:
Why it’s worth spending £60 on a hand-woven tea towel.

I’m with you. How could we do that?
That has got to be the role of the media. We have to educate the public about textiles, in order to re-connect with our clothes. Over the last two generations, the knowledge of how clothes are made has been lost from the collective consciousness. If people knew how cotton was grown, harvested, spun, knit and sewn, then they would understand why a T-shirt should cost more than a cup of coffee. And, that if it does not, then someone somewhere in the production chain is being exploited and paying the price. If you are not paying for your clothes, then someone else is.
 

selvedge.com | Facebook: @SelvedgeMag
Twitter: @SelvedgeMag | Instagram: selvedgemagazine

 
images: courtesy of Selvedge magazine | published with permission

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Untamed Romania

There are two places where I am the happiest in the world: on the top of the mountain and in the vast countryside of my childhood. It’s not just the proximity of nature that I need in order to feel at peace, but to be right in the middle of it. I need nature for my own health, sanity and happiness. I know that the fact that I grew up in a country that is extremely gifted geographically speaking, and that I had the chance to experience it from very early on – having complete freedom as a child, spending much of my childhood outside, in walking distance from the woods, or roaming and climbing the mountains with my parents and brother every chance we got – played an incredibly important part in my love for nature and in appreciating our natural surroundings. It was always right there, I always had the space to exercise this love. But I never took it for granted, not even as a child. I knew we had the responsibility to protect nature and to preserve it. The uniqueness of Romania is in its natural, raw, untamed beauty that still exists, the kind that is extinct in many Western European countries.
 
Romania neimblanzita

Untamed Romania

Romania neimblanzita
 
The documentary Romania neîmblânzitã (Untamed Romania), directed to Tom Barton-Humphreys and co-written by Alex Pãun and Tom Barton-Humphreys, is a beautiful homage to our country. I imagine that for many people who have never visited Romania (and one can not say they have visited Romania unless they went into its rich wilderness) it will be a revelation. And, given the fact that it’s so fascinatingly narrated by one of our greatest actors, Victor Rebengiuc (I advise you to first watch the trailer below in Romanian even if you don’t speak the language and then watch the English version), it will also be a source of wonder and dreaming, as if unfolded from a fairy tale.
 

 
I do appreciate the positive view on Romania shown in the film, just as much as I appreciate the signal of alarm at the end – a call to acknowledging the environmental threats our country, as the rest of the world, has been facing, and to taking the necessary steps against them. Believe me, I am one of the most fervent critics of everything that’s wrong in this country, including the disasters man has brought to nature. But, I believe that this beautiful projection of Romania can inspire positive reaction more than harsh reportages have or will. I sincerely hope that as many people as possible, from all over the world, will get to watch this film. But what I truly want is for every Romanian to see it so that they are reminded of the magic and fragile beauty of their own country and of their responsibility to protect it with all their might. In this digital age, our children need to be close to nature more than we ever have. I don’t want it to be my son’s fairy tale, I want it to be his reality.

photo credit: Transilvania Film

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His and Hers: The Trench Coat in Kramer vs. Kramer

Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman are both wearing trench coats in Kramer vs. Kramer. The trench is the opposite of a statement piece, equally embraced by men and women, molding itself to the wearer. And it couldn’t reflect two more different characters than those of Meryl Streep’s Joanna and Dustin Hoffman’s Ted in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). But before getting to his and her trench, there is another image that best reflects the two different personalities that their clothes portray. It is not even in the film, but a still set photograph – another proof that good still photography has the ability to capture the essence and the look of an entire movie in one shot.
 
Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer  
It is this image above: her wearing a buttoned-up white blouse, him dressed in a well worn sports top. In one single shot, their characters are established, allowing us to read into them – they couldn’t be farther apart from each other, and their goals in life couldn’t be more different.

Costume designer Ruth Morley dressed Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in clothes that epitomise the fashion of late 1970s, but which equally, and most importantly, define their characters. Ted’s clothes are made for living, classic American style. He is a working man, but after his wife leaves him and their son, he takes care of their little boy, too. His clothes are a good indicator of that. They are practical, lived in, and often able to transition effortlessly from work to play-time. Even at the beginning of the film, when Ted comes back from work to hear that Joanna is leaving him, he is dressed in much more casual clothes than her: jeans, white tunic shirt and a navy blazer whereas she is wearing a buttoned-up blouse, shirt suit, heels and a Hermès bag, and carrying her trench on her arm when she leaves. We are somehow prepared that underneath Ted is much more than a workaholic advertising executive whose thoughts are almost entirely centered around his new account.

Joanna’s clothes, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. She only wears skirts and elegant blouses even when she is not a working mom, even when she returns and takes her son (Justin Henry) to the park for a day – she is wearing heels and her three quarter length Burberry trench carefully fastened up.
 
Meryl Streep trench coat Kramer vs Kramer 
This second time I watched the film (a couple of weeks ago), Joanna’s buttoned-up clothes reminded me of Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s film with neo-noir inflictions Nocturnal Animals, where Adams’ character, Susan Morrow, uses clothes as a glamorous armour, a façade, a front to mask the turbulence beneath the surface. In the same sense, Joanna’s polished looks betray deep emotional turmoil, despite her trying to look like she is maintaining control. Her clothes don’t change much after she leaves her family and son in order to find herself and make peace with herself in the hope she will be a better mother. And this consistency in her wardrobe shows that she has no alternative but come to terms with the difficult choice she has made. Her life will not be any easier from now on and she knows it: “Believe me, I have to live with it every day of my life,” she confesses during the trial for the custody of her son.

Streep’s straight, steep, strict trench maintains the silhouette and iconography of the classic noir trench – a no nonsense masculinity, independence, a compromised and confused individual, living a life of toil and loneliness, outside of the realm and conventions of domesticity, negotiating life the best she can, trying to maintain control and not to get adrift but not really succeeding.

Hoffman is wearing his trench to work after he drops his son off at school. He doesn’t have his life figured out either. But he is wearing his trench much more loosely, unbuttoned, untied. It’s like he is saying: “I’m taking my work seriously, but I’m taking my job as a father much more seriously.”
 
Dustin Hoffman trench Kramer vs Kramer 
images: still set photograph and film stills from “Kramer vs. Kramer” | Columbia Pictures

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The Book That Taught Me A Sad Truth About Modern-Day Cinema

I believe the books written by and about François Truffaut outnumber all the other film books in my library. The latest addition is The Man Who Loved Films (originally in Romanian, Bãrbatul care iubea filmele) a less known book on the French director’s work written by Magda Mihãilescu. It is an in-depth, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking study on Truffaut’s films. But, to be completely honest, it is much too philosophical, very heavy reading. I do appreciate it as a cinephile, and of course we need this kind of writing, too, but if you want more people to watch Truffaut’s films, this is not the right book to begin with. Because I sincerely believe the large public needs some more accessible reading to make them familiar with the most important figures of cinema, to make them familiar with cinema.
 
François Truffaut The Man Who Loved Films book 
Even if your film knowledge is broad and deep, you have to wear that knowledge lightly. It’s not only because the cultural drift in our modern-day society is so acute that you have to take steps to make culture more accessible (like making watching classic films more accessible to the wide public, not only on DVDs), but it’s also important to acknowledge that true appreciation begins with pleasure. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like and don’t read film criticism. You have to love films in order to arouse other people’s interest in watching films. Many film critics leave me the impression they don’t find any joy in watching movies. You have to know how to communicate with the readers. Assume they know nothing. If you get technical and philosophical, there won’t be many who will be interested in Truffaut’s, or Murnau’s or Fritz Lang’s films. Most of them will continue to head for the multiplex.

This is the sad truth that struck me when I read Magda Mihãilescu’s book. There is a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci at some point, from the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, that goes like this: “We have come to be judged by people who have never watched a film by Truffaut.” This truth is even more sour (and the reality, so many more years later, much worse). Because, yes, there are many working in the film industry, from producers to so called critics, who are clearly not in it for the sake of true cinema and culture. So it really is in the hands of movie lovers to spread the love for classic cinema, for good cinema, any way we can, but mostly by watching movies and talking about them in a down-to-earth, approachable style, and with all the mighty love we are capable of.

Related content: François Truffaut: The Complete Films / Truffaut, Kar Wai, Film Noir and … / Hitchcock Truffaut

Classiq - An online journal that celebrates cinema, culture and storytelling

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The Wolves of Currumpaw

I am fascinated with children’s books. I have kept all my childhood books, my almost three-year-old son already has a considerable collection and I have started to even buy him books to save for later. Yes, you could say the children’s books in our home are as much for him as they are for me. And there are many beautiful ones. But when Vlad Niculescu recently recommended me William Grill’s book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, I had no idea that I was in for a complete shift of view on children’s books, illustration and storytelling.
 
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William GrillBook cover craftsmanship (or why we should definitely judge a book by its looks). “I like how some of the American Indians’ blankets and tapestries tell stories or contain symbolic imagery. I wanted this to be an obvious connection as their culture and art ties in with the historical and environmental theme of the book.”
 
My son loves drawing, colouring and experimenting with colour: his cows are red, his squirrels are mauve, his zebras are blue. Quite a statement! And I love it. But when I first saw him drawing a pink horse, I made one of those monumental mistakes I have been trying not to make as a parent: I told him “Don’t draw it like that, there is no pink horse!” As soon as I finished my phrase, I realised the enormity of my narrow-mindedness and misjudgement – discouraging my child to explore his own ideas and feelings, to express himself, to give free rein to his imagination. Because, at this age, kids’ drawings are characterized by absolute freedom and their lack of resemblance to the real world. Children do not try to capture what they see but rather what they imagine, experimenting with colours and shapes, and, yes, green cats and five-legged dogs. It’s complete freedom of the mind, something priceless that we, as we grow up, will try the rest of our lives to recapture without succeeding.

This is the kind of creative freedom William Grill’s illustrations evoke. Not that they don’t reflect reality (all the more so that his book is based on real events and his images show an obsessive attention for details), but his style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, child-like (in the best possible meaning) strokes of pencil leave enough room to the imagination. It’s the most striking feeling.
 
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

“While looking out over the Corrumpa I knew I this view had to be the shot that established Lobo surveying his kingdom.”

 
The Wolves of Currumpaw is based on a true story, but made accessible to children – a re-telling of Ernest Thompson Seton’s wilderness drama Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, originally published in 1898. The book is about a notorious wolf pack and the man hired to trap their leader. This is the tale of how one remarkable wolf changed a hunter’s life and led to the formation of wildlife conservation societies across America. It is a fascinating book as much as it is deeply moving and educational, provoking feelings of empathy for the wild life and outlining the importance of respecting nature and cultural diversity.

William’s own text accompanies his drawings, but the images could very well tell the story without the help of words, as they form a complex and complete visual narrative that captures your interest, eye and imagination from the very first to the very last one.

And what’s even more extraordinary is that, as William Grill confessed in an interview for The Telegraph after his first published work, Shackleton’s Journey (another beauty of a book that’s next on my list), for the author, the idea of narrative non-fiction grew out of his struggle with reading. “I’m dyslexic so most of what I read when younger was comics and graphic novels. I watched a lot of animation. I was intimidated by books but I still liked stories, so that’s how the book came about. Me being such a bad reader shaped the look of the book: I had to draw everything out and explain it through pictures, to make it as clear as I could.”
 
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill
 
As part of the research for his book, William went to New Mexico where he drew the wolves at Wild Spirit Wolf sanctuary. “I like the pressure of drawing from life and the way it forces you to engage and make decisions quickly, it’s a great way to absorb what you’re seeing. I can remember far more about a place from a drawing than a photo; what I was thinking, the intensity of the sun to ravens croaking,” he told The Guardian.

I agree. As much as I love photography, it’s always been drawing and illustration that I have felt more strongly about. Illustration is a different mindset, not as accessible, instant and easy to alternate than photography, and it really speaks to the viewer on a more personal level. And when it comes to children, there really is nothing that can sparkle their creativity the way painting, drawing or a beautifully illustrated book can. You just have to hold The Wolves of Currumpaw in your hands to understand why. Every single detail, from the cloth spine, to the cover artwork, feels very much hand-crafted. It helps children dream.
 
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill“One of the most memorable parts of the trip was going for a walk up Rabbit Ear Mountain as the moon came out. The huge moonlight sky sparked my imagination; of wolves howling and running through the night.”
 
illustrations by William Grill / photos from the book “The Wolves of Currumpaw”

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